Night Vision

I don’t enjoy aspirin the way I used to. Aspirin used to be a taste sensation for me. I would always chew the tablets, for that shrapnel burst of salicylate, almost as mouth-curdling in its own way as lemon, and it seemed to me that the analgesic effect was kick-started with the absorption of that distinctive taste. I don’t think that the generic aspirin I buy tastes any different, but it has lost most of its interest; a consequence—another consequence—of the breakdown of discipline and morale in the body’s engineering corps that comes with advancing years.

Another area that has been impacted is my driving. I’m not thinking, here, about the sudden desertion of the steering wheel aggression that had me pushing up over the speed limit enough to keep me totally focussed on the road, ahead and behind; such complete concentration now replaced by wandering attention and slow reactions. I’m thinking, rather, of the sheer visual pleasure of the road at its most beautiful—the freeway at night.

My special delight was the South-East Freeway, approaching the city. At night, a freeway is all about the architecture of light, from the flashing white lines and cats-eyes to the polygonal white curve of the concrete barriers, up in the great suspended sweep of the light standards wrapping the space like so many radiant moonflowers. And hanging in that tunnel of light, floating above the tarmac, are signs; guidance for strangers, reminders for the distracted, and for all an intermittent arbour of luminous green and white, shade from the dark above. Sweeping under Vulture Street, across the Captain Cook to the city, my sense of sight would be ravished by the river to the left reflecting the lights of Southbank, and Victoria white on the water, and on the right the city, thousands of glinting cubes piled up in patchwork towers of darkness and light, and on the top the luscious neon, and all the while the forward rush towards the crush of city exit signs.

It no longer thrills me in the same way. Maybe it’s the freeway that’s getting old. Maybe age has dimmed the lights and corrosion has filmed the signs. But the city itself is bigger and brighter than ever, so I fear it is aspirin syndrome.

There is another, more austere pleasure that I took in driving at night. It is the pleasure, out on the Bruce or the Warrego or the Newell or the New England, in the many miles between the towns, on the two lane asphalt, of driving a long night towards some distant city, with no other cars in sight; of gathering the narrow world into the dimmest extent of the headlights—a hint of the road, the far sparkle of a reflector, a line of white or yellow streaming in, the sudden clumps of roadside grass, the bowing trees, the tarmac suddenly filled with flashing aggregate—then discarding it to the outer darkness.

Beneath the back and forth of the road across the bright windscreen, was constantly the delicious cosy glow of the dashboard, like light rain on a tin roof. The intimacy of this cocoon, the comforting glow within the enclosing darkness, is in hypnotic contrast contrast with the reality of speed. It’s an example both of classical relativity and the revolt of our kinetic perceptions against physical realities unanticipated at the birth of the species. The reality of speed is unappreciated, and unappreciable, as when, in daylight, we slow down to pass through a town, and at 60k, the road seems to be passing slowly enough for us to run beside the car.

There must always be someone in the design factories of each of the car makers who understands this; someone who can summon up the darkened world, the sleep-inducing tremors and swayings of the car and the zone of light ahead; someone who will then dream of a perfect glowing intermediary to talk to the driver of the world outside so seductively as to bring a thrill of anticipation to the prospect of a distant night on the road.

Then there is the switching off—the breaking of the spell. Out by Coonabarabran, say, on a moonless and cloudless night, find a spot on the road to pull over, turn off the engine, turn off the lights, step out into the night and experience a stab of fear. Suddenly, you are immensely alone in a vast blackness without markers except the road dimly perceived beside you, and only the night sounds of the bush and the ticking of the engine as it settles and starts to cool.

But overhead…. Lift up your face to the stars; where have they come from? How did this teeming sky become so full? How did this display, normally so pale, become so bright? Stand under it, and let the river of light, ceaselessly turbulent at the borders of perceptibility, wash into your spirit.

It’s been twenty years since I have done this. I think, though, that the delight and wonder I felt dims much more slowly than my eyesight. Writing about it now I recover such shades of the sense of it, that I believe its power would be undiminished. I have re-ignited my imagination at the prospect of such everynight delights, and I want to drive the freeway again, to drive the dark cool road again, to see the stars again. How much capacity for seeing have I lost, then, doc? Chew two aspirin, and tell me in the morning.

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